Galas and damp squibs

Galas, jamborees, pageants, functions, ceremonies – can’t stand them, generally. Just not my cup of tea; certainly not my glass of champagne. However, I would never deny or underestimate the importance of those occasions: the social ritual to endorse an activity, the marking of beginnings and ends, the sense of celebration to make people feel things are worthwhile and, yes, to encourage them to donate money to keep the things going.

When it comes to classical music gala concerts, there are often reasons aplenty to share my dislike: over-familiar repertory, music packaged for easy-listening, and above all a formality of dress and behaviour that sends out completely the wrong message to people who enjoy classical music, but have the impression that concert hall “rituals” are intimidating or unfriendly – much hard work has been done to rectify the reception concert halls give to newcomers, yet one event can still destroy that goodwill overnight.

State funding of classical music in Europe, however scant, means in any case that lavish events for wealthy donors are not a commonplace philanthropic ritual across the season – at least compared to the U.S.A., where orchestras and opera companies rely heavily on fundraising events for a portion of their basic income.

But in London particularly, there seems a peculiar absence of celebration of classical music culture. Maybe not so peculiar, given the ignorance and laziness of mainstream media, and the philistine anti-intellectualism of most social and political leaders. Most other capital cities which had the combined talents of Salonen, Jurowski, Oramo, Rattle (soon), Wigglesworth, of the players in the five major symphony orchestras, of the opera company members, and of all the other resident ensembles and musicians, would have a little old-fashioned civic pride about the quality and range of culture within their domain – and would make some effort to tell people.

That London doesn’t, means that music seasons here generally slip in unnoticed. Not, obviously, by regular concert-goers keen to return to their favourite venues and players – but in any broader sense of public awareness. It’s partly complicated by the number of halls and ensembles: a rondo of gala opening nights across multiple venues, orchestras and companies would grow tiresome (and expensive), even though the cumulative effect could generate powerful publicity if it were coordinated.

We might look across the Atlantic at the New York Philharmonic opening gala concert this Thursday 24th September (Lang Lang in Greig, plus Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, all conducted by Alan Gilbert) and shake our heads at the ticket prices (£51 minimum up to £167, including a champagne reception with the performers) – but then consider that the concert is sold out, and being broadcast live and streamed on WQXR radio.

Then we look at the Southbank Centre’s classical music season opening concert this Wednesday 23rd September (Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Mahler’s 7th Symphony), note with relief that the ticket prices are as normal for classical music concerts in London (from £4.50 for concessions, or £9, up to £65, ie cheaper as a range of prices than most other cultural, popular or sporting events) – and then, two days before the concert, wonder why less than half the seats in the Royal Festival Hall have been sold and the live concert on BBC Radio 3 that evening is from a rival concert hall with an orchestra that opened its season a week previously.

It’s obviously difficult and expensive to promote one-off events in a city as full of culture as London, and it’s never entirely clear why some concerts sell-out and others (even with top performers and repertory) fail to garner an audience. But an effort can still be made, and in this case it seems almost as if the Southbank Centre has lost interest in marketing, publicising and celebrating what used to be the principal activity at the premier concert hall (at least for the moment) in the capital.

A half-empty hall is always a depressing sight, dampening the atmosphere for audience members, and a poor reward for the performers. But worse, there’s a missed opportunity this Wednesday. The opening concert of a season should always be a celebration – an evening that is anticipated, discussed, and enjoyed, an event that sets the scene for all the concerts to follow, and an unambiguous reminder that classical music is of essential cultural value. It can’t be any of that without a little touch of the gala and a large amount of publicity, neither of which seem in evidence this week.

Not enough opera

As the 2015-16 London opera season starts up, and before we run into the usual ignorant comments about ticket prices, it’s useful to address some different questions of accessibility: that there are too few opera performances, of too little repertory.

To start, let’s look back earlier this year at one unusual week, when a remarkable amount of opera was being performed in a few days.

Taking the week in London from 7th to 13th March 2015, there were opening nights of new productions (or one-off concert performances) of The Siege of Calais, Alice in Wonderland, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Semele, The Wild Man of the West, The Rake’s Progress, La bohème and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle; and further performances in their runs of The Mastersingers, Madama Butterfly, Die Zauberflöte, The Indian Queen, La Traviata, I pazzi per progetto and The Dancing Master – 15 individual productions in total, and with multiple further nights taken into account, a splendid total of 28 opera performances in seven days.

Butterfly, La bohème and La Traviata apart, it was also a good week for unfamiliar repertory, a trend continued over the next weeks with performances of Catone in Utica, Giove in Argo, The Dragon of Wantley, and Adriano in Siria. (Admittedly several of the unusual works were staged in the smallest available theatres.) The quantity of performances and choice of works felt energising and exciting, as if opera had become a genuinely popular activity and, odd as it may sound, normal.

These 28 performances provided roughly 50,000 opera-seats in the week (i.e. number of theatre seats, multiplied by number of performances, summed across all the venues involved), whereas the weekly average for the 2014-2015 season was a much lower 18,000 opera-seats. The data used for these statistics is somewhat generalised – but the important point is that, for a few days, London had nearly three times its average availability of opera-seats.

As expected, that week went uncelebrated by the mainstream media, who are unable to move on from losing the argument over the cost of opera tickets, and continue to give a distorted (though thankfully limited) impression of what live opera is all about.

But, although these opera performances were spread across 8 theatres/halls, another 2 theatres (not in use that week) are frequently used to stage opera, and maybe a further 10 London venues are used sporadically (giving 20 opera venues in total), obviously only 2 theatres out of these 20 venues are staging opera productions regularly across the whole year.

For comparison, looking at spoken theatre/musicals, London has 241 theatres at over 200 sites, and attendance figures indicate that at least 423,000 theatre-seats are available on average per week – the actual capacity could be even higher. As for cinema, London’s 850 screens at 158 sites regularly have multiple screenings of films each day, so there are at a minimum some 812,000 cinema-seats available in an average week. Many of those theatres and most of those cinemas are open to audiences almost every day of the year.

As mentioned already, it was not only the opera-seat availability that week that was unusual, but also the number of works performed. Typically, London sees around 120 individual operas performed in a year, and even though the average of 2.3 per week is misleading because of seasonal skews, it still makes that particular week exceptional with 15 individual works.

But again, London has probably in excess of 1,000 individual spoken plays/musicals performed each year, and given that London’s cinemas show roughly 200 individual films per week it’s not unreasonable to assume that there could be 4,000 individual films shown in a year.

Factor in that many of the 28 opera performances we started with had been sold out for months (which is also the case for certain other productions throughout the year), and the availability of tickets (especially the cheapest ones) reduces still further for the casual opera-goer – some of whom have a genuine argument that they lose interest when unable to attend a performance at reasonable short-notice or in response to good reviews. As a consequence, they stop trying to look at any opera performance, and often the availability of opera-seats simply goes unnoticed.

Except for a handful of star-cast productions in the theatre, it is generally possible to buy tickets (including at the cheapest prices) during the run of a play. Accessibility in this sense is never an issue, and it is really quite easy for most Londoners to develop and sustain a spoken-theatre-going habit.

Further, given that in recent seasons the opera repertory has been skewed in parts towards a handful of frequently performed works or composers, with major works and composers entirely absent, there’s sometimes an impression that opera houses are museums of C19th Italy, rather than theatres that have a serious dramatic purpose – even if that is not their best intention. There is obviously plenty of other repertory staged, including a fair (but not excellent) range of C21st and world premiere productions, but those are often subject to the advance-sell out or small theatre capacity problems to be generally accessible. Contrariwise, it would be hard to justify any argument that London’s theatre and cinema repertory is not wide enough.

Broadening the opera-seat comparison to Berlin, Paris and Vienna, there is a not dissimilar weekly average availability of 20,000, 14,000 and 22,000 respectively. But those cities are quite different in population to the greater London region. The easiest measure for comparison is to look at how many people in each city could attend just one performance per year. Paris fares worst at just under 9% of the adult population, London next worst at just over 9%, Berlin a more respectable 24%, and Vienna leads the provision of opera with 55% of the population able to attend one opera performance each year.

But one event a year, however special, is hardly “normal” for most cultural or sporting activities – at least in a large capital city (for this post leaving aside the issue of minimal or zero provision of opera in many places outside the capital). Attending 12 opera performances a year would seem a minimum reasonable normal amount, and the percentage of the four cities’ population able to do that is 0.7% for Paris, 0.8% for London, 2% for Berlin and over 4.5% for Vienna. Paris and Berlin certainly are understated in this comparison, as it’s hard to assemble performance and capacity numbers for the smaller and seasonal companies – instinct says that London actually has the lowest opera-seat provision relative to population. A question for the Arts Council, the UK government Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and London’s Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture, Munira Mirza, is, how can they justify that London lags behind competitor capitals in Europe in the provision of such a major art form?

If that remarkable week in london were consistent through most of the year, opera in one sense would be less exclusive quite simply because it could be part of a normal theatre-going activity, and the repertory broad enough for people to try unknown works just as they do in the spoken theatre – safe in the knowledge that if they don’t like the work or the production, another one will be along the following week that they might enjoy.

But of course, what we see currently is the opposite in availability. Through a malicious and vindictive cut in their Arts Council funding, English National Opera have been forced to reduce their offering, from 15 productions and 158 performances in 2014-2015, to 11 productions and under 100 performances in 2015-2016. That means a loss to London of nearly 150,000 opera-seats in the year, or on average nearly 3,000 opera-seats a week. The impact is on repertory as well, with a withdrawal into “safer” works, however imaginatively they are marketed.

This reduction in accessibility makes opera literally more exclusive, as fewer and fewer people can attend live staged performances – an activity which has to be the heart not just of an opera-loving habit, but of a thriving art form and of the serious provision of culture in a capital city. The second question for the Arts Council, DCMS and the Deputy Mayor is, do you really want to exclude 99% of London’s population from regularly seeing a live art form?

Adriano in Siria, Opera Settecento, 16 September 2015

Adriano in Siria
Pergolesi/Metastasio

Cadogan Hall

Adriano – Michael Taylor
Emirena – Maria Ostroukhova
Farnaspe – Erica Eloff
Sabina – Augusta Hebbert
Osroa – Gyula Rab
Aquilo – Cenk Karaferya

Oboe – Daniel Lanthier
Orchestra of Opera Settecento
Conductor – Leo Duarte

Adriano in Siria is one of several of Metastasio’s opera seria libretti which were used by more than 60 composers, in this case from the first setting in 1732 by Caldara, to the last by Mercadante in 1828; earlier this year, a recording of Veracini’s 1735 version was released, and J.C. Bach’s 1765 version was staged in London. Adriano ends with a gesture of imperial magnanimity; hence many of the new versions were composed for royal occasions across Europe, such as Pergolesi’s setting, performed in Naples in October 1734, which was dedicated to Charles Bourbon, Duke of Parma and future king of Spain, whose forces had captured the kingdom of Sicily and its capital Naples the previous May.

Compared to Vinci, Hasse, Porpora, et alia, Pergolesi hasn’t featured as prominently in the recent wave of opera seria revivals and aria recordings. There is however a complete edition of his operas on DVD, recorded at the 2010 Pergolesi tercentenary festival in his native Jesi, and from that set Adriano in Siria is also available as a stand-alone and on YouTube.

This performance was organised by Opera Settecento, a group dedicated to reviving under-performed opera seria and whose chairman Christopher Silvester is a particular fan of this opera. Their previous events were Vivaldi’s Griselda in 2014 and Handel’s Catone in Utica in 2015 at the London Handel Festival; plans for 2016 include a return to the Handel Festival in March and another September Cadogan Hall performance of an opera by Hasse.

The action of Adriano takes place in Antioch, where the future Roman emperor Hadrian as local governor has conquered and offered peace to the Parthians. He seeks an affair with Emirena, the daughter of the Parthian king Osroa. She is betrothed to Farnaspe, a Parthian prince. Hadrian’s friend Aquilo is in love with Hadrian’s betrothed, Sabina. The plot centres on Osroa’s attempts for revenge against Hadrian, who in turn is persuaded by Sabina to pardon everyone and marry her.

Despite its general appeal, the music is variable: Act 1 drags (no fault of the excellent young cast or the orchestra) until the final two arias, Act 2 is the best balanced musically and dramatically, and the final act wraps things up with rather too much action and too little music. The concert-format (chairs and music stands for the singers, in front of the orchestra) didn’t hinder the dramatic involvement of the cast, who stayed in role and responded subtly to the unfolding of events.

In the title role, Michael Taylor immediately established the authority and confidence of the victorious governor, with a full tone and legato maintained with careful use of limited vibrato. The high-lying coloratura was all managed with ease, and the voice balanced from top to bottom, only very occasionally thinning under pressure of the passagework. Russian mezzo Maria Ostroukhova (oddly identified as soprano in the programme booklet) produced a warm and rich sound, conveying the emotional torment of Emirena and unafraid to use the heavy voice to push fearlessly through the fast passages with mostly clear articulation. Her impassioned Act 1 aria Sola mi lasci a piangere was the first musical highlight of the evening.

Following on rapidly, Farnaspe’s aria Lieto così talvolta is the most performed and recorded extract from the whole opera. Pergolesi sensibly placed this aria at the end of the act – despite being less bravura than other arias for the character and in the opera, it’s the undoubted musical standout in the work. The obbligato oboe, representing a caged nightingale, was sensitively controlled and with some genuine quiet playing. The role was originally written for Caffarelli, and all the arias were handled impeccably by Erica Eloff who maintained a clear, bright tone across the huge range required, and showed first-rate technical control in runs over the break and back.

Augusta Hebbert showed similar control in the role of Sabina, including a perfectly floated held note in Chi soffre, senza pianto, though the emotion was a little generalised through all her arias. The incidental role of Aquilo was reduced further by the last-minute cut of the character’s Act 2 aria, leaving just the one Act 3 aria Contento forse vivere – with music familiar in Stravinsky’s borrowing for Pulcinella. Cenk Karaferya’s full vibrato did justice to the character’s frustrated passion for Sabina.

The most sensational singing of the evening came from the tenor Gyula Rab, who is only in the second year of his professional career. Urged on by the full orchestral sound in his bravura arias, he conveyed Osroa’s desire for revenge with an impassioned, slightly Italianate sound at the top, firm tone and precision in the fast detail.

Leo Duarte, busy these days as principle oboe with the English Baroque Soloists in Orphée et Eurydice, was making his operatic conducting debut this evening. The intention was clearly to keep the drama flowing, the next recitative typically pushing ahead immediately after the last beat of the preceding aria, though inevitably some clapping intruded as the audience wished to show genuine appreciation for the singers. The ensemble and tempi benefitted especially from Jonathan Rees’ excellent cello continuo. It’s a long evening for the violins, and although in a few places better attention to articulation and variety of tone would have kept the textures more interesting, the tuning and pace was secure throughout.

In passing, it should be mentioned that the programme booklets for the concert were delayed, only arriving during the first interval, and the £5 charge was generously waived as an apology – although, as both a thorough proofread and a pruning of self-indulgent biographies were still needed, paying would have rankled.

Orphée et Eurydice (1774), 14 September 2015

Orphée et Eurydice (1774 Paris version)
Gluck/Moline (after Calzabigi)

Royal Opera House

Orphée – Juan Diego Flórez
Amour – Amanda Forsythe
Eurydice – Lucy Crowe

Hofesh Shechter Company
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists

Conductor – John Eliot Gardiner
Directors – Hofesh Shechter and John Fulljames
Designer – Conor Murphy
Lighting designer – Lee Curran
Choreographer – Hofesh Shechter

Eyebrows have been raised at the “Royal Opera billing” of this production, given the ad hoc chorus, dancers and orchestra. The Royal Opera House, however, is still clearly a producing house, and if extending the company to include adjunct performing groups means that the repertory is broadened and the number of performances maintained or increased, that is surely for the good.

Of greater concern, is that the raison d’être of this production seems as much to be concordance both with Hofest (a month-long season of Hofesh Shechter’s work across several London venues) and with the Royal Opera’s Orpheus theme during 2015, rather than any serious attempt to rectify the lack of productions of a composer who was central to the historical development of opera as a genre from the late eighteenth century onwards. Gluck’s tercentenary in 2014 went uncelebrated by any major British company; Bampton, Buxton and the Royal Northern College of Music managed short runs of three operas out of the thirty-nine which survive complete.

Further, although Orfeo ed Euridice in its original Italian 1762 version (last seen at the Royal Opera in 1991) was the groundbreaking work of “reform opera” that first moved the dramatic possibilities of the genre out of the straitjacket of opera seria and the recitative/da capo aria conventions, and even though the 1774 revision presented here was in some ways a more fully worked version of Gluck and Calzabigi’s new approach, there are arguments that Alceste (only seen at the Royal Opera in 1981), Armide (never performed by the Royal Opera), and both Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride (just the latter seen at the Royal Opera, in 2007) are all musically superior. Dramatically too, in the case of those last three works, which were the examples used by Hoffmann, von Mosel and others as the models to be followed for the creation of German romantic opera. If Gluck’s operas are worth performing for their own sake, and quite obviously they are, it doesn’t seem much to ask that a major national company chooses more carefully which one to stage.

Perhaps this would all matter less if this production had been anything close to a success, rather than a collage of different aesthetics with very limited dramatic appeal. The orchestra was placed across the width of the mid-stage, on a platform that was raised and lowered at different points, other wide platforms behind and above them were raised, lowered and angled, the upper platform colander-like allowing beams of light to shine through decoratively – but all with no clear narrative consistency or dramatic effect. At least someone had found the oil can to stop the squeaking that has often been heard here from scenery. The dance company was on-stage almost constantly, mingling with the chorus and duplicating the action; for the final, long, 20 minutes of the evening they took over events with repetitious, enervating movement – yes it’s ballet music that in any case destabilises the drama considerably, but it was the clearest evidence that the dance choreography throughout wasn’t integral to the presentation of the dramatic logic, but a parallel response to surface detail in the narrative and the music.

The story, characters – and singers – were all rather lost in the melee, and the limited attention to their direction led in the worst case to laughter in the upper part of the theatre at Euridice’s perfunctory death. Juan Diego Flórez has recorded the role of Orphée in French and was clearly secure with the high writing and passagework as would be expected from his Italian bel canto background. The tone doesn’t appeal to all, and some of his phrasing sounded too deliberate. Lucy Crowe managed excellent ornamentation and some vocally dramatic involvement with the character, but was swamped by the staging. Amanda Forsythe made the best impression, not through the clichéd gold lamé suit she was given, but with strong line and purposeful phrasing. My French neighbour was dédaigneuse about the quality of diction from all the singers.

The playing also achieved mixed results. Ignoring the barrage of sforzandi that is Gardiner’s trademark, whilst at times there was depth of tone in full passages and sensitivity in quieter sections, too often the phrasing felt routine and the sound thinned alarmingly.

For once, this intellectually unchallenging mix of spectacle met with general approval from the Royal Opera audience, at least judging by the welcome absence of booing. But neither as a dramatic investigation of a profound myth, nor as a tribute to one of the few composers who changed music decisively, could it be considered a significant theatrical achievement.

BBC Prom 73, VPO/Bychkov, 10 September 2015

BBC Prom 73, 10 September 2015

Brahms – Symphony No. 3 in F Major
Schmidt – Symphony No. 2 in E flat major

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
conductor – Semyon Bychkov

Clearly it would be ungrateful to wish that this concert had not taken place in the Royal Albert Hall, given the small number of performances by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in London across the years and that many of the capacity audience would otherwise be denied a chance to hear their “favourite” orchestra. But for once, it was quite impossible to put aside any suspension of disbelief in the RAH acoustic, at least from my standing place in the gallery. The subtleties of Brahms’ most enigmatic symphonic work were often lost in the wallow of the huge space, and the over-active detail of Schmidt’s orchestration regularly became annoyingly bright and shiny. In the absence of a decent concert hall in London, the performance of both works (and I thought I’d never say this) would have been heard to better effect in the comparatively smaller and dryer Royal Festival Hall.

Other factors weighed against universal approval of the Brahms, the sole work in the first half of the concert. An early start, necessitated by another prom concert later in the evening, meant more latecomers than usual were admitted after the first movement, in all parts of the hall. Determined inter-movement clapping from the same two sources higher up in the hall also contributed to keeping the atmosphere disturbed. None of the music that Bychkov and the orchestra have in the repertoire for their current tour (through Salzburg, Grafeneg, Birmingham, London, Lucerne, Bucharest, Vienna and Linz, for 23 days) would have been ideal as an opening work before the Brahms – though Haydn’s 44th Symphony would have been a particular pleasure. Indeed, during their tour, the Brahms symphony is consistently placed on its own; though, significantly, always in the second half of a concert. I’m not intending to demean music as a useful crowd control device, but for once, anything that settled the audience, gave the clapping-addicts some early satisfaction, and prepared more people for listening to the Brahms sufficiently closely, would have been very welcome.

The first movement was taken briskly, with less neurotic questioning of each phrase than in many performances. Instead, some “classical” restraint through both thematic groups in the exposition meant the outbursts in the development and coda had a careful structural significance. The effect on the harmonic momentum caused by some unmarked slowing during transitions into the second subject group and the repeat of the exposition was negligible, and in contrast the continuation of pulse during the horn passage leading to the recapitulation was a welcome lack of indulgence, in keeping with the more objective approach to the movement as a whole.

That’s not to imply any absence of warmth or subtlety in the conducting or playing, shown especially in the sequences of the second movement, where mood and colour brightened and darkened imperceptibly, yet were kept in the same careful structure balance. Few orchestras can match the VPO for a sound that is so entirely appropriate to Brahms’ most echt-Viennese music in the third movement of this work. But here, one began to wonder if the objective approach was a deliberate response to the constraints of the hall or an attempt to keep excess passion in check. Either way, it wasn’t as entrancing as expected, even if in keeping with the restraint shown through the work as a whole.

No problems in the last movement, where the simplicity of phrasing in the chorale-like theme held its place in the excitable surrounding passages, and placed the emotional weight of the movement appropriately in the coda rather than any of the preceding climaxes.

Whatever Schmidt learned during his brief period of music theory study with Bruckner, it was obviously unlikely to be a sense of classical restraint. The first proms performance of Schmidt’s Second Symphony, doubtless also the first time many in the audience had heard it live or at all, was incessantly virtuosic and exuberant – but did nothing to dispel the sense that the work comprises a luxuriously rich sequence of near-random passages, held together more by repetition than symphonic necessity.

Unfamiliarity is not the issue. During the early decades of the 20th century, British critical reaction to similar outsize late-romantic symphonic music may have been bewildered and inadequate through lack of exposure to that idiom. These days the rapid assimilation of far more complex idioms is standard, and the problem instead is maintaining interest in this particular work as a symphony, despite its considerable superficial character and occasional grand (or loud) gestures.

Some instances of the musical imagery and ideas are appealing enough for a few bars, but the lack of substantial development and transition from one statement to its next repetition is ultimately frustrating. The middle movement “cleverly” appends the scherzo and trio as the last of a set of variations instead of a stand-alone movement on their own, but the lack of invention in most of the preceding eight variations numbs appreciation of that structural effect. Paragraphs and melodic fragments start, rich orchestration builds, all to tail off uncertainly towards another restatement of the same material, especially in the finale. Some passages – the eighth variation in the second movement, the polyphonic wind choir opening the last movement – reach expressive heights on their own. The military second theme in the scherzo sounds oddly like a prefigurement of Hindemith. But right up to the perfunctory conclusion, these passages remain isolated moments of clarity in a swirl of unstructured colour.

Bychkov clearly likes the work, having conducted it regularly, and it’s hard to imagine it played more sympathetically than in this performance. Even the most awkardly-written tutti passages had unquestionable coherence and momentum, and everywhere else the fluency in line and texture kept the attention, if not the interest. The problems with the piece are hardly atypical of its period, nor can every unknown work be expected to return to the repertory as a masterpiece. If you’re happy to put musical logic aside, and want 45 minutes of huge, unfamiliar late-romantic noise, then this symphony is, just, enjoyable enough.

Macbeth, Styles/Huffman, Glyndebourne/ROH, 9 September 2015

Macbeth

Luke Styles, Shakespeare (adapted by Ted Huffman)
Glyndebourne at Linbury Studio Theatre, 9 September 2015

Duncan/Second Murderer – John Mackenzie-Lavansch
Malcolm – Michael Wallace
Sergeant/First Murderer – David Shaw
Lennox/Third Murderer – James Geer
Ross – Benjamin Cahn
Macbeth – Ed Ballard
Banquo – Alessandro Fisher
Lady Macbeth – Aidan Coburn
Macduff – Richard Bignall
Fleance – Luke Saint
Lady Macduff/Porter – Andrew Davies
Macduff’s son – Xavier Murtagh

Director – Ted Huffman
Designer – Kitty Callister
Lighting Designer – David Manion

members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor – Jeremy Bines

Lucky the opera composer of today, able to set classic drama (Shakespeare obviously, in this case) free from pressure to conform with musical conventions or expectations. Whilst Luke Styles and librettist Ted Huffman might have been limited in terms of duration and scale by the Glyndebourne chamber opera circumstances for which the opera was commissioned, there’s no obvious musical hinderance to their use of any form or mode of expression compared to many historic attempts.

The precedents, after all, are hardly enouraging: the C19th number-opera form comes close to destroying any musico-dramatic individuality in Verdi’s Macbeth; A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest both engendered settings as contrived and artificial as any C19th archetype; and, post-expressionist in the wrong way, Reimann’s Lear bores the audience by mistaking sonic violence for dramatic intensity.

For this new work, premiered in 2015 at the Glyndbourne Festival and receiving its London premiere with a single sold-out performance, Styles has taken the approach of a loose mix of accompanied recitative and arioso, arguably a better framework with its Monteverdian precedent than any other historic musico-formal approach.

The music has his typically sparse instrumental groupings and themes which are more fragmentary than aphoristic, all welded into a coherent, easy to grasp musical structure. Take for example the careful use of timbres and textures for dramatic exposition (flute and harp duet for Lady Macbeth, the a cappella wordless chorus under Macbeth’s soliloquies, a descending scale for an assassination motif). Throughout the 75 minute work, there is a contrast in moods that is not just a Pavlovian reaction to narrative events; the choice of a simple held chord deepens the emotional focus at key moments, better than any outpouring through predictable decoration.

Examples of Styles’ previous works such as Shades of Forward and Bellagio by Water will give some idea of the sounds of Macbeth, as does the extract from a previous Glyndebourne opera, Darkness – Waking Shadow.

The staging consisted of green grassy matting and a handful of furniture props; the orchestra was located at the rear of the stage, providing ideal balance; and subtitles, not always needed with the quality of diction many of the singers achieved, projected in large letters on the rear wall (similar to the excellent subtitles for Hindemith’s Ein Landarzt at the GSMD in June 2015. A gentle nod to alienation had singers sitting at the sides of the stage, even when not taking “crowd” roles. In keeping with some recent stagings of Shakespeare, the cast (young and and mostly recent members of Glyndebourne Festival Chorus) was all male; though with no attempt in the female roles at femininity other than in the external guise – quite different in approach from the “authentic” all-male cast for Twelth Night at the Globe and also from modern readings such as Propeller Theatre Company’s production of Henry V.

Huffman had shortened the play by excluding the witches, which placed a stark focus on human flaws and greed as explanations for the tragedy. More puzzlingly, and causing some confusion in the audience around me, Malcolm’s final words in the play after Macbeth’s death were reset for Macbeth to sing, being hailed as King of Scotland himself. The music here switched genre into an Adams-y set of major chord arpeggios, but given that the remainder of the play had been adapted “straight” there seemed no particular logic for this altered ending.

Ed Ballard was thoroughly secure through the vocal range of his large title role, conveying a brooding menace by careful shading of the voice rather than any histrionics. John Mackenzie-Lavansch set a mood of authority from the start as Duncan, making one wish that the librettist had kept him alive too. Aidan Coburn bravely eschewed the use of head voice for the high-lying role of Lady Macbeth; while the tone coarsened slightly, it was dramatically consistent with the staging. Jeremy Bines and the small group of players from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, were superlative in maintaing the pace and balance.

If there’s a slight lack of enthusiasm, it’s that even with the shortening of the play, too much felt crammed in to allow the music room to breath and develop. As such, the music often seemed held in check and yet stretched slightly thin. Both the composer and librettist have talked about this current work being an initial version for a full-length opera and maybe the extra length would do more justice to their creative talents.